As a fiction writer, I spend far too much time thinking and talking about stories and how they’re constructed. A lot of people do this, of course; the Internet has fostered an entire culture, barely even a subculture anymore, of armchair storyboard analysts. I’m old enough to remember when Cracked.com actually published articles aside from “5 Ways I’d Have Written This Movie Better.”
The best education a writer can ever have, bar none, is to teach literature, which I’ve done on the middle school, high school, and collegiate level. When you’re the one up in front of the classroom expected to have all the answers, it really forces you to pay attention to the boring class-assigned book you’re reading (particularly since you’re the boring teacher who assigned it). It really hammers home the foundational layers of what makes storytelling work, and how similar most stories are at their core.
Being a quote-unquote gamer as well as a writer, I’ve used the language of video games more than once to illustrate my point. (FUN FACT: the portal onto the factory floor of Magrathea in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is best explained to a room full of 8th graders as a Warp Pipe from Super Mario Bros.) If you know anything about literary form, you’ll know that one of the most elementary elements discussed in the beginner classroom is “point-of-view”. First person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “I”, and third person point-of-view is when the narration of a story refers to the main character as “he” or “she”, or some form of such. As I happily and effectively described in both junior high and high school literatures courses, video games are also described in terms of being in either first or third person. A first person game puts you directly into the head of the avatar, and you see the world through their eyes. A third person game puts you outside of the avatar you’re controlling, often directly over their shoulder. It is a model I have used to illustrate point of view on many occasions.
And I’ve recently realized just how terribly inaccurate it is.
Lesser known, and even lesser used in literature, is SECOND person point-of-view. A story told in second person is one where the narration refers to the main character as “you”. Now, you see where that could be confusing or limited in its use. It is the ultimate example of the author turning the mirror on the reader. There really is only so much one can do with the form. The most famous application of second person POV, for my money, is in old school Choose Your Own Adventure stories. You know, the ones that start with a passage like, “You wake up in an abandoned mine shaft. After dusting off dirt, debris, and spiders, you look around. To your left, the shaft heads towards a light. To you right: darkness. Which way will you go?” The text then offers the reader an option: “To go left, turn to page 28. To go right, turn to page 33,” and the rest of the story unfolds in this manner, inviting the reader to go back and re-read the book many times over, experiencing a different story each time. The virtual world in the pages of the books is laid out by the author, and you, the reader, get to decide how you experience that world.
I’m wondering if you’re starting to see the connection.
It is a connection that clicked for me when I was playing a non-Nintendo game that 1.) I’ve been playing recently, 3.) I’m way too late to the party on, and D.) is awesome. The game in question: Portal 2. Valve’s greatest game, IMO (never-minding that the only other Valve game I’ve ever played is Portal), Portal 2 features the greatest video game character every created. No, not the player avatar. The player avatar is a silent protagonist named Chell, about whom very little is actually revealed or known. She’s importantly unimportant, though, so we’ll come back to her in just a bit. I’m speaking, of course, of GLaDOS, the wickedly scripted and voiced AI character who runs the dead lab where Chell is imprisoned. GLaDOS is deliciously insane, and her history and past (and yes, no spoilers, but “her” is an applicable descriptor) are really at the heart of the world of Portal.
Consider, then, the sort of storytelling that GLaDOS and Chell represent. GLaDOS is decidedly NOT the player character. In the first game, she is the clear-cut antagonist; in the second, she could still be called such (although more shades of grey certainly exist in that story as it unfolds.) As you, the player, in the person of Chell, puzzles your way through Aperture Labs, GLaDOS taunts you and leads you astray, all the time referring to you, as “you”.
That alone doesn’t mean, “Hey! Video games are all told in the second person!” Just because the antagonist refers to you as “you” isn’t enough to determine that, but it was enough to turn on a light bulb for me. While Portal games aren’t necessarily Choose Your Own Adventure books, and are actually pretty linear in their progression, they present a story told through the characters in front of you and the world around you. The main character, Chell, is a cipher. Her character appearance is set, but she’s a blank slate for you to write on, a vessel through which you experience the game’s adventure. She is a, and it couldn’t be more obvious in retrospect, a literal shell. That’s right. Chell is a shell. Valve isn’t being subtle here, but we all kind of missed it, didn’t we? Just like Half-Life‘s Gordan Freeman is a free man.
Another great example is this that new game that just came out on Switch. It’s called The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Perhaps you’ve heard of it?
Ha ha, I’m funny, Skyrim is one of the biggest games of all time, though I’m just now beginning it because, as I’ve made clear many times on these pages, I’m a Nintendo-only gamer… more or less. In Skyrim you choose your race, your gender, your facial features, the literal and figurative paths you take, the disciplines you learn, the factions in the in-game world you’re going to team up with, which ones you’ll oppose, and which ones you’ll avoid altogether… everything. And you do it all without your avatar ever saying a word. Everything is a variable, and the world responds to and is shaped by your choices and actions. The game tends to get janky for that very reason (it needs to be a remarkably malleably piece of programming to try and predict for everything the player may choose to do), but that’s the price developer Bethesda Softworks was willing to pay for developing an open-everything game. Spoiler warning: it totally worked out for them.
I have to get back to Nintendo here because of the nature of my blog (I’ve just started Skyrim but could already talk about it all day; some games obviously deserve their “all-time classic” label right from the word “go”), but environmental storytelling, storytelling that presents you, the player, with a world and then steps back to allow you to react to it… that’s a storytelling style Nintendo has embraced for a long time. Two big examples jump out at me. The first is, of course, The Legend of Zelda and series protagonist Link. Just as Chell is an empty shell that the player is invited to inhabit in order to experience the story, Link is the graphical avatar standing in as the link between the player and the world. Both Chell and Link are silent and seemingly emotionless, and this is so for a very particular reason: both Valve and Nintendo are asking you to react to the game worlds around these avatars with your OWN thoughts, feelings, and responses, not with pre-scripted ones voice-acted for you in cut scenes.
This is where the future of storytelling in video games lies, I think. Fully voiced cinematic cut-scenes are an awfully poor fit for a medium that is built around direct audience interaction, when you think about it. Why would you want to play a video game that takes control AWAY from you when the best stuff in the narrative is happening? It doesn’t make sense.
Consider, then, Portal and Breath of the Wild. Both are games with silent protagonists and incredibly deep and well-designed words. When I’m playing Portal and I stumble across some cryptic graffiti left behind in a cranny warning me not to trust GLaDOS, it’s far more effective for the game to sit back and let me respond emotionally and intellectually to this narrative turn, as opposed to cutting away to a scene that rips me out of Chell’s head and shows me a character I’ve been role-playing as reacting to the scenario in a way I never would. Same goes for Breath of the Wild. There’s two forms of storytelling in Breath of the Wild. There are traditional cut scenes that have been criticized and discussed and which sometimes feel awkward and out-of-character and out of place… and then there’s the atmospheric storytelling that unfolds over the course of hundreds of hours of gameplay. I don’t know about you, but I find exploring a field full of petrified Guardians in front of a rotting barricade to be a far more compelling narrative experience than a cut scene where Falco-lite makes snide comments at me.
(That’s not to say cinematic storytelling NEVER works. The four Divine Champions are given some much-needed fleshing out in Breath of the Wild’s DLC Champion’s Ballad, and all are given good time in new much-needed cinematics that show them interacting in the past with Princess Zelda.)
The best example of this all, though, might be in the Metroid franchise. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime tell amazing stories through atmosphere and environments, without series protagonist Samus Aran (or anyone else) saying a word. Metroid: Other M, though, turns a chatty Samus into a damaged little girl with daddy issues, and that whole game can just go and die in a fire for all I care.
I think, then, that the case is clear. The ideal storytelling in an interactive medium is interactive, not cinematic; in hindsight, this couldn’t be more obvious. So that’s the golden rule of storytelling in a video game, I think: flesh out your world, developers, as richly as you can… but when you drop me into, don’t signpost me to death. Don’t dictate to me how your game should make me think, feel, and react. Just let me run loose and tell me, “You can go left or you can go right. Which way will you go?”